Friday, June 22, 2007

Howard adopts punitive approach to social dysfunction in remote Aboriginal communities

With his usual lack of sensitivity and bully boy style, Howard has swept aside the rights of indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to come down hard on child abuse. It is not difficult to work out the politics. If its not asylum seekers its the weakest minority in our society under the hammer. The fact that child welfare problems are a function of decades of paternalistic repression and neglect that has robbed traditional communities of their dignity and cultural pride, and the resources they need to enable local solutions, does'nt figure in the Howard/Brough macho stance. Aboriginal community leaders and advocates have been crying out for self-determined solutions to problems of disadvantage for decades and getting 'white fella' rule in response. Brough is another in a long line of bully boy politicians who think they know the answers - when, in fact, all they know is how to whip up antipathy and hate.

Can anyone sniff an election in the wind? I would not be surprised if Aboriginal land rights are threatened down the track under this backward looking regime.

David Marr has an excellent piece on how the great centraliser has attacked Aboriginal policy in the NT under the guise of a 'national emergency'.

"But why stop with the Northern Territory? The Prime Minister spoke yesterday of a national emergency but did not offer a national solution. Noel Pearson has clearly inspired much of this tough response but his stamping ground on Cape York won't be touched by Canberra's dramatic intervention.

Yet the whole point of the 1967 referendum - the anniversary of which we've been making a song and dance about lately - was to allow Canberra to assume the national leadership role with respect to Aborigines.

The really brave course in 2007 would be to tackle the problems of Aboriginal communities everywhere - in the Kimberley, in the Pitjantjatjara Lands and out in western NSW. But Howard is only picking off the Northern Territory.

Lawyers are puzzling over the rushed prose of yesterday's announcement. It's not a blueprint for change. It's barely a sketch. To make the new regime work, the national parliament will have to pass legislation. Only then will the devils in the detail be apparent.

Howard is handing a victory to white hardliners who have claimed for years that Aboriginal customary law encourages domestic violence and sexual assaults by letting blacks off lightly. The Howard plan will see customary law disappear as a "mitigating factor" in sentencing and bail conditions in the territory.

Canberra scrubbed customary law from the Commonwealth Crimes Act late last year. At that time the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission pleaded with the Government to think again: "The bill is not based on, or supported, by any evidenced research. It is in conflict with every major inquiry into the role of cultural background and customary law in the Australian legal system."

Now Howard is proposing the same outcome up north - despite instructions from the territory's Attorney-General, Syd Stirling, that prosecutors must never allow customary law to be used "to curtail an Aboriginal woman's or child's right to individual safety and freedom from violence."

The conservative constitutional commentator Professor Greg Craven, of Curtin University, urges caution. "When I was Crown counsel in Victoria I did everything I could to stop recognition of customary law, and then I came to Western Australia and I realised it is a much more complex position than one thinks.

"I'm not saying every aspect of customary law is a good thing and should be recognised. But it is a real issue. That is one of the very few occasions in my life where I have been comprehensively wrong."

No comments: